As the eyes of the footballing world switch to the glittering international events, no not the friendlies, that are the World Cup Play-offs to see just who will take final spots in the world’s biggest football tournament, so we take a look back over some of the finest play-offs in World Cup history.
A game which marked unbridled joy for the victors and complete despair for the losers, it cued jubilant scenes in Iran and once more left an English manager, in this case Terry Venables, tasting the rough end of international football’s own peculiar brand of justice.
These two teams were widely recognised as two of the best in the Asia/Oceania sections, containing some of the finest talents which either side have ever produced. For Iran, Ali Daei, Mehdi Mahdavikia and Khodadad Azizi, one of the best Asian players of the nineties, they had an attacking unit capable of causing plenty of problems.
While for Australia, Mark Viduka and 17-year old Harry Kewell were up and coming young players set for brighter futures, Mark Bosnich was a proven Premiership performer at Aston Villa and players like Stan Lazaridis, Craig Moore and Tony Vidmar would become names familiar to British football fans.
Australia had entered this match in prime form, having built up a then world record 14 match winning spree while Iran had lost to Japan to finish third in the qualifying campaign and for them this was the last chance at World Cup glory.
The first match took place in front of an estimated crowd of 128,000 in the Azadi Stadium in Tehran and ended 1-1, but now with the game taking place in front of 75,000 raucous Australian fans at the Melbourne Cricket Ground the odds were stacked firmly in favour of the Socceroos.
They quickly took a 2-0 lead as Harry Kewell swept home Aurelio Vidmar’s cross and then Vidmar himself got in on the act. It appeared there was little to stop Australia from qualifying for France 98, and a radio commentator at this point famously announced: “Pack your bags, we’re off to France!”
Yet Iran hit back, thanks in part to a five-minute delay caused by a spectator invading the pitch. After 71 minutes, having enjoyed little attacking threat of note, they scored through Karim Bagheri who was set up by the dangerous Azizi. Suddenly Australia were rocking, having looked so secure their confidence was shattered and four minutes later Azizi raced onto a through-ball and slotted past Bosnich.
The MCG fell silent, Australia’s confidence was gone and so was their World Cup dream as Iran proceeded to hold out for the draw which put them through to the final. The atmosphere among the home fans was equivalent to that found in a graveyard, TV pundit Johnny Warren openly wept on air and Harry Kewell would later recall it was “painful.”
For Iran the scene was sheer jubilation, the team were greeted by 70,000 fans upon their return to Tehran and they would go on to enjoy one of their greatest sporting moments at that World Cup when they beat the USA 2-1. Meanwhile for Australia in the short-term their disappointment was short-lived as they reached the 1997 Confederations Cup final before losing 6-0 to the mighty Brazil.
Football fans in Hungary have not had much to cheer about over the past fifty years, not since the days of Puskas and Kocsis and the Golden Generation who came so close to World Cup glory have they had a team worth shouting about. The days of glory have gone, and since then it is as if the whole of football in Hungary has been about conducting a post-mortem into what happened to that Golden Generation. There have, in essence, been many more bad days than good days, and on this very night it was a particularly bad day.
Yugoslavia were by no means a poor side, any team which contains talents such as Savo Milosevic, Sinisa Mihajlovic and Predrag Mijatovic-who was emerging off the back of some sumptuous performances for Real Madrid, could hardly be termed awful. They were a team who at times could play like the very best, unfortunately for Hungary this was one of those times.
Seven goals, only one in reply, and a home crowd who were silenced, and stunned perhaps into submission. A goal down after one minute, four down after 26. This match wasn’t just finished after those 26 minutes, the tie-all 164 minutes that remained of it-was and Hungary’s World Cup hopes lay in ruins.
Branko Brnovics early goal, a mishit volley which somehow crept in, was a hammerblow to their chances which then all but disappeared once Miroslav Djukic was left unmarked to head home a corner then Dejan Savicevic escaped his marker to fire home. The fourth goal-after only 26 minutes was sublime, future Chelsea midfielder Slavisa Jokanovic drew in two defenders before slipping it between them to Predrag Mijatovic. He advanced on the area and then fired home a shot which even Ferenc Puskas would have been proud of.
Mijatovic then added another before half-time opportunistically finishing after two Hungarian defenders failed to clear, and then completed his hat-trick in the second half by beating two men and slotting the ball home. Mijatovic was then substituted only 54 minutes in, but his replacement Savo Milosevic completed the rout nine minutes later.
There was late solace for Hungary with a late goal from Bela Illis, which was a distinct afterthought given the rout which had come before. Hungary, shell-shocked then travelled to Belgrade to suffer another masterclass from the Yugoslavians as they lost 5-0, with Mijatovic grabbing 4 goals, to take the aggregate score over two legs to 12-1.
3) 2005: Turkey v Switzerland – November 12th and 16th
We move quite literally from the sublime to the ridiculous. This match gets its own distinct niche in history not for the match itself, although it was a tight affair which Switzerland edged on away goals 4-4, but for its aftermath.
In the aftermath of Turkey’s 4-2 victory Swiss player Benjamin Huggel appeared to kick Mehmet Ozdelik, a member of the Turkish backroom staff as they were leaving the pitch after the staff member attempted to trip Swiss midfielder Valon Behrami. Then Turkish defender Alpay was said to have kicked Swiss striker Marco Streller. Later reports emerged that a Swiss player, Stephane Grichting had to be taken to hospital.
The Swiss members of staff on the bench later alleged they were attacked by stewards afterwards in the stadium tunnel. “It was unbelievable,” Burgener told French sports daily L’Equipe.
“I was punched in the face and was hit on the hip. I was beaten up by stewards. When I saw four or five guys come and beat me while they were supposed to protect me, I got really scared.”
The scenes overshadowed a gripping encounter, where Turkey-who had lost 2-0 in the first leg in Switzerland-fought hard to put themselves back into World Cup contention before having it cruelly ripped away.
They suffered an early blow when Alexander Frei scored a penalty after 2 minutes after Alpay’s handball, which gave Switzerland a decisive away goal. But the Turks hit back through Tuncay Sanli who scored two first half headers-and then a Necati Ates’ penalty brought Turkey level and needing one goal to qualify for Germany.
But then Marco Streller struck a decisive blow to put the Swiss back in front after 84 minutes and despite a late Tuncay goal which wrapped up his hat-trick, it was enough for the Turks. Yet it was the events which took place after full-time which will make this match something to remember.
4) 2001: Slovenia v Romania – November 10th and 14th
A tense tight encounter by two of Eastern Europe’s football’s finest is the next in our list. In theory these two had entered World Cup qualifying as two of the surprise packages in Euro 2000 and were heavily fancied to qualify, but found themselves facing off against one another in the playoffs.
Slovenia caused a surprise by managing to qualify second in a group containing Russia, Yugoslavia and Switzerland while Romania finished second to the much vaunted Italy. Both sides contained fine individual talents, Romania managed by former national hero Gheorghe Hagi contained players such as Adrian Mutu, Christian Chivu and Cosmin Contra. While Slovenia, featuring the country’s finest ever player Zlatko Zahovic had managed to sneak through scoring nine goals and conceding just eight but managed to go through qualifying without losing.
The first leg in Slovenia was a tight affair, Marius Niculae gave the away team the lead with an early strike. But then Tottenham flop Milenko Acimovic headed Slovenia level and then a wonderful goal by Milan Osterc gave Slovenia a lead which they clung onto for dear life. The game finished 2-1, but few gave them much chance of getting a result in Romania and qualifying.
Yet as football history tells us, you should never write anyone off. A tense first half ended goalless, further increasing the pressure on the home team, and then ten minutes into the second half, Mladen Rudonja-the pacey Slovenian winger managed to grab a priceless goal for the Slovenes-his first goal in 55 international games.
This was a vital goal, and despite a Cosmin Contra goal and a late rally it was ultimately decisive. Slovenia took up their place in Japan and South Korea in 2002. The result forced Romanian hero Hagi to resign as manager as he reflected on his side’s inability to qualify, however under a year later his counterpart that very day in Romania Sretko Katanec was ousted as manager amidst a clash with star man Zahovic as Slovenia crashed out of the World Cup they had worked so hard to qualify for.
5) 1997: Ukraine v Croatia – October 29th and November 15th
Another clash of two of Eastern Europe’s finest, as two of the most promising ‘young’ teams in Europe at the time clashed in 1997. As they currently rank among two of the best countries in international football it is easy to forget that these international teams are themselves two of the younger teams-having only existed since the fall of Communism in the late 1980s.
Yet by the late 1990s both teams were building teams which would lay the roots for the success which both countries have enjoyed over the decade since. Croatia may well have had one of the finest teams Eastern Europe has ever produced, and had served notice of their intent in Euro 1996 when they defeated reigning champions Denmark-a match which saw a wondergoal from their master striker Davor Suker.
Suker himself was still in residence and at the peak of his powers, preparing to embark on a wonderful season with Real Madrid culminating in a Champions League win. Alongside him were Zvonomir Boban, Goran Vlaovic, Robert Prosinecki, Aljosa Asanovic and current Croatia manager Slaven Bilic as part of a group widely recognised as Croatia’s “Golden Generation.”
Meanwhile for Ukraine, they were a team being built around a fine Dynamo Kiev team, with exciting young strikers Andrei Shevchenko and Sergei Rebrov emerging and the qualities of defenders Oleg Luzhny, Oleksandr Holovko and Vyacheslav Vashchuk.
Both teams had finished second to much fancied opposition in their groups, but had been impressive qualifiers with Ukraine only losing twice-away from home at Portugal and Germany. While Croatia disappointingly lost their decisive match in Copenhagen 3-1 to Denmark condemning them to the lottery of a playoff.
The first game was played in the intimidating Maksimir Stadium in Zagreb and was easily won by Croatia-who were virtually unbeatable at home. Goals from Slaven Bilic and a fine strike from the gifted Goran Vlaovic beat a Ukraine team who were badly missing their young star Shevchenko. Croatia had dominated the match, but the second leg in Kiev would be a different matter.
Shevchenko, restored to the starting line-up, gave Ukraine hope with a goal after four minutes, but a deflected goal by Juventus’ classy forward Alen Boksic effectively sealed the tie for Croatia as they got the precious away goal to seal the win.
The tie itself was a fairly one-sided tie, but its importance cannot be underestimated as it served notice of what was to come for both teams.
For Ukraine, beaten but unbowed, it was a sign that they were on the brink of emerging as a footballing force once again. Meanwhile for Croatia, qualification took them to France 98 where they would enjoy their finest ever footballing moment in finishing in third place in the tournament-only losing to eventual champions France.